Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Northern Peru - the Maranon Endemics

Entry #2

13 September

We got up at 4:15 a.m. Dave woke up from a Malarone-induced dream (Malarone is the malaria drug we're taking) that beats my dancing pig dream from our trip two years ago - being chased by a philosophizing bear spouting Espinoza and promising to kill him! Having escaped the bear, we packed up all our gear, met in the lobby at 5:00 a.m., loaded up the bus, and left Cajamarca. We almost left Bill behind in the dark! Fortunately someone noticed that his seat was empty. Barry told us a story about a tour leader in India who left a client behind and drove 500 km before discovering it! He knew he had to go back to get him, so returned. In the mean time the resourceful client had managed to get a ride and they passed each other unawares on the road! Like I said, fortunately someone noticed that Bill was missing. :)

On the way out of town we passed the steaming Banos del Inca (natural hot springs) where Attahualpa (the ruling Inca) took his ease after defeating his half-brother in an Inca civil war (initiated when their father died of small pox which proceeded European invasion by traveling overland from Mexico courtesy of Cortez and his cronies). The invading Pizarro and his Spaniards and allies met Attahualpa in Cajamarca and in an audacious plot, ambushed and captured him, and eventually killed him (after holding him for ransom, extorting several rooms full of gold and silver from his subjects, deciding he was now a liability, and convincing him to convert so that they would only garrot him instead of burning him at the stake .... at least it was a quicker death).

Basically all day we birded along the road to Celendin. We drove more than 2 hours in the dark and then had breakfast near Abra Gran Chimu (3750 m). We were in the clouds and it was DAMN COLD and WINDY - it was totally useless to bird because every other sentient being was huddled down somewhere trying to keep warm except a bunch of crazy bird-nerd gringos! All of us donned all of the warm clothes that we'd brought on the trip and we were still cold! We would stand in the lee of the bus to avoid the wind, then venture out for a few minutes in the hopes that it had gotten better or to "take care of business", and quickly return. I think it was at this point that I advised "the guys" that I didn't want to hear any complaints about peeing in this weather, as they had to explose much less of their anatomy than I did! We actually had pancakes for breakfast. I watched Raul and the crew create a little protected area from seat cushions and miscellaneous supplies from the bus; they placed the stove behind this and made pancakes in spite of gale-force winds and freezing temperatures. Amazing!

We hurriedly climbed back on the bus and continued on our way, not having seen any of the high-elevation birds we'd hoped for on that stop. Along the roads I noticed lots of stubbled fields (I think it is just time to start planting again, as the rainy season will soon start) - mostly wheat and barley. Barry said that it was still too low to grow quinoa and raise llamas and alpacas here. At over 3000 m they were still growing corn! The agriculture practices were amazing - skinny little fields crammed into narrow valleys draining the mountainsides (I suppose to take advantage of a little more water draining from above); a bit of soil held in place by dirt berms and scrub terraces; small pine plantations; OLD, possibly Inca, stone walls still being used. Where we passed places not plowed under, there were native grasses - the Ichu grass that I remember from our last trip. I learned that the people cultivate lupine (the flower) because they eat the seeds (called tarwi).

We passed through Cruz Conga (3350 m), birding above and below. At one place I had the impression that a family saw our bus coming down the valley, grabbed all the kids, and rushed out to the front of the house along the road to stand and watch us -- perhaps in the hope that we'd stop and pay them for a photo. I was tempted because the family included a very small child all decked out, complete with a miniature version of the typical tall straw hat.

We had a VERY long morning, not eating until about 2:00 p.m.! We basically drove to target areas across the pass, stopped and birded for an hour or two, got picked up by the bus, drove on to the next target. I was feeling pretty tired and depleted by the end of the morning (OK, OK, I was grumpy!) and walked on down the road ahead of the group seeking the bus that was supposedly preparing a lunch that I desperately needed. Nevertheless, we were very successful, succeeding in seeing most of the target birds for this section including Rufous Antpitta (the Cajamarca subspecies that will be split). This bird took some work. Amazingly the species has colonized pine plantations as their native habitat has been destroyed. So we hiked up into a plantation by the road and spent quite a while luring one in. An interesting story in retrospect .... everyone was very focused on seeing the Antpitta, so no one paid much attention when Bill described a pretty little bird that he had seen and I described an unidentified call (a long trill ending with a hic-cup). However, when we got back down to the road and Bill and I reiterated our questions, Barry suddenly realized that the two of us had observed an important target bird - Jelski's Chat-tyrant. We dashed back up to the location where we'd seen/heard it but searched to no avail. However, we did get several other good birds that morning including Striated Earthcreeper, White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, and some bonuses (not planned for) - Crested Tit-Spinetail and Black Metaltail! As usual we had the two common thrushes for the trip - the Chiguanco Thrush and the Great Thrush (see photo).

The long-awaited lunch along the road was a fabulous beef and vegetable soup that really hit the spot after waiting so long. Lunch was combined with some rather hilarious ribbing primarily among Dave, Terry and Erick, although I have to admit that somehow I was lured down the slippery slope of the semi-barbed poking that they do at each other ... "Three Stooges"! It's like traveling around with 3 adolescent brothers! The rest of the group watched with bemused expressions but they are quickly catching on to this form of jocularity and I fear that it will only get worse!

We then continued the ..... driving .... stopping ..... birding .... driving..... We observed an interesting incident (I believe that we were the cause of it although I do not understand why). We came walking around a curve in the road and saw, down the road, a house with two women in colorful clothing sitting on the porch. It was a nice scene and Dan and I took pictures, figuring that we were too far away for them to be uncomfortable. Almost immediately the two jumped up and gathered up what appeared to be a car battery (!?) in a blanket and began running clumsily down the hill, carrying it and looking back over their shoulders, headed for another house on the next rise where they quickly hid. I don't know whether they saw the cameras in spite of the distance and didn't want their pictures taken, or whether they saw what appeared to be a large group of strange white men (they couldn't have told that I was a woman at that distance) and were afraid. An unsolved mystery.

After our last birding stop, we drove for another hour until we got to Celendin. Barry had been warning us on a regular basis about how terrible the hotel was that we would be staying in. We figured that he was trying to lower our expectations sufficiently so that we'd be pleasantly surprised when we got there. Well, we certainly were surprised; in fact, so was Barry. Apparently the Hotel Celendin had been substantially renovated since he was there last and it was quite nice, although it did have its idiosyncracies. It was built around a courtyard with a fountain in the middle that was filled with goldfish. Dave and my room was facing the central town plaza so we anticipated that we might be the ones to experience the noisy conditions that Barry had warned about. We had beers in the central patio next to the goldfish pond and then repaired to the restaurant right in the hotel where we had a room all to ourselves while we did our bird list for the day and then ate dinner - for me Lomo Saltado (a Peruvian dish of beef steak sliced over french fries, onions, etc. and over rice). We came to learn on this trip that Peruvians can put french fried potatoes into about any dish and that the rule of only one starch with a meal doesn't apply - they usually have both potatoes and rice and sometimes even fried plaintains (platanos fritos). In fact when we eventually got tired of all the starch, we would usually have to repeat 2 or 3 times to our incredulous waiter that we only wanted rice (no potatoes). They just couldn't believe it. I had my first day without a headache, so I indulged in beer with the rest of the group. However, considering that Peruvian beer should not be considered one of their culinary masterpieces, this was not really such a big deal! Where they served Pisco Sours, that was another story!

To bed at about 9:45 p.m.

Birds seen on the road from Cajamarca to Celendin
September 13

Cattle Egret
Puna Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle
Variable (Red-backed) Hawk
Mountain Caracara
American Kestrel
Plumbeous Rail
Andean Lapwing
Eared Dove
Andean Swift
Giant Hummingbird
Shining Sunbeam
Rainbow Starfrontlet
Black Metaltail (Peruvian Endemic)
Tyrian Metaltail
Andean Flicker
Striated Earthcreeper (Peruvian Endemic)
Bar-winged Cinclodes
Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail (Peruvian Endemic)
Baron's Spinetail (Peruvian Endemic)
Streak-throated Canastero
Stripe-headed Antpitta (heard only)
Rufous (Cajamarca) Antpitta (Peruvian Endemic)
White-throated Tyrannulet
Tufted Tit-Tyrant
Cliff Flycatcher
Jelski's Chat-Tyrant (heard only)
Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant
White-browed Chat-Tyrant
Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant
White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant
Rufous-webbed Tyrant
Chiguanco Thrush
Great Thrush
House Wren
Andean Swallow
Paramo Pipit
Hooded Siskin
Spectacled Whitestart (Redstart)
Black-crested Warbler
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Cinereous Conebill
Blue-and-yellow Tanager
Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager
Peruvian Sierra-Finch (Near Endemic)
Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch
Plumbeous Sierra-Finch
Plain-colored Seedeater
Black-throated Flower-piercer
Golden-billed Saltator

14 September

At 1:30 A.M. some guy in the park outside our hotel window started to sing - I vaguely remember the noise but Dave says that he had quite a nice voice! At 2:30 A.M. a rooster started crowing! At 4:45 we got up to pack our equipment, take a quick shower, and meet downstairs at 5:30. We piled onto the bus and once more headed out of town. As the bus pulled away from the curb at the hotel, I saw two guys laying on the sidewalk in the plaza wrapped up in blankets, sleeping with their roster tied by the foot to their blankets ... a walking alarm clock! I'm amazed that they hadn't strangled it at 2:30 .... there was no sign of daylight.

We didn't drive far this time, just to the heights above town where the crew set up for breakfast while we walked around birding (again unsuccessfully) for Jelski's Chat-tyrant. Breakfast was fried eggs and bacon. For the morning we continued birding along the road and being picked up regularly by the bus to bird further on. Early on I FINALLY got looks at both Golden-billed Saltator and Golden-bellied Grosbeak - not really rare species or lifers but ones I kept missing whenever anyone spotted them. We crossed over an unnamed Abra (pass) (3070 m) into the Maranon Valley. Much of the day was spent winding down innumerable hairpin curves along extremely narrow roads. Neither Erick nor Terry are big fans of these precipitous cliffs. Terry joked about the strategy of talking in detail about sports teams and events for which he really gave a "rodent's behind" in order to distract himself and hammed it up by tieing a bandanna around his eyes and clutching the seat in front of him. But I think it was not a part of the trip that either of them would want to repeat.

All day we gradually moved down into dryer thornscrub habitat with lots of cacti - a Cordon-type and a Senecio (old man)-type columnar cactus; a palo verde type tree (Cercidium genus) with pale green bark and yellow flowers, and a boojum tree-type (Pseudobombax genus), which has yellow fuzzy ball flowers. I took pictures of another plant (lost) that was mostly bare of leaves but with beautiful little scarlet flowers; the few leaves I saw were star-shaped (like Sweet Gum leaves). On the Pacific slope (before the pass) we watched several guys hiking down from high elevation fields with HUGE piles of some plant piled on top of their heads. Barry said it was lupine but Terry thought it was some other kind of pea-like legume. Anyway the piles were as tall and wide as the men - we could barely see their heads (see photo). They headed down hill toward some of the many flat, cleared threshing floors we saw that morning (at least that was what I thought they were; I saw someone with something like a flail for threshing the crops).

We birded around the Limon area. We observed a nice variety of butterflies - Monarch butterflies, a large yellow-green sulphur-type, and something that looked like a brownish skipper with 2 small tan bars on the forewing and long tails on the hind wing. We had lunch along the road, again rather late and I was pretty tired and hungry - chicken salad with raisins and apples. We continued on down into the valley, still looking for Yellow-faced Parrotlets and Maranon Thrush - unsuccessfully.

We did see several target endemics today - Black-necked Woodpecker, Buff-bellied Tanager, and Gray-winged Inca-Finch - and one of my favorites again, the Maranon (Black-crested) Tit-Tyrant (see photo).

When we were close enough to see the river (Rio Maranon), we found a trail that headed toward the river and got off the bus, hoping that we'd see some of our targets a little removed from the road. I was getting tired but felt up to it when we alighted. However, I wasn't quite prepared for the deep, slippery dust and the steep grades in places, so I had a difficult time. We walked all the way down the rest of the mountain to the river - it took about 2 hours and I was really dragging when I got there. Some of the others had made it there quite a bit before I dragged my sorry butt into camp. I'd overdone it and "hit the wall" before I made it to the camp at Balsas. This was to be our first night camping and the crew had arrived ahead of us and had most of the tents set up and our gear ready to put inside. I needed a little "space", so I laid down in the tent and took a few deep breaths and rested for a while - it was pretty hot in the tent (and outside for that matter). After I got myself centered, I went back and joined the others.

The camp was set up right by the river - similar green tents (2 persons per tent) to what we'd had on our previous trip; they provided ThermaRest-type mattresses and small camp pillows (we brought our own light-weight sleeping bags); there was also a cooking tent and (if we needed it) a dining tent which we only used on one occasion because the weather was pleasant. Last but not least, there was the toilet tent, completely with a little sickle moon symbol on the side; unlike last time when the crew dug a pit over which the tent and folding seat were perched, this time we were apparently carrying everything with us and the folding toilet seat was fitted with specially designed bags ..... I know, I know, too much information, but I hated them so I had to mention it!

Late afternoon remained unpleasantly hot and the gnats were nasty - trying to fly into my eyes and ears and biting - little, round blood-red spots (they really like knuckles and the bases of fingernails). The local (Quechua) term for the little buggers is "puma huacachi" which means "makes the puma cry" .... an apt name. Fortunately they appear to really like testosterone-laced flesh best and I'm surrounded by 7 ready sources, so I wasn't bitten as badly as some of the guys. Equally as fortunately, as soon as the sun went down, they disappeared and Barry's warning about the replacement shift of mosquitos proved unfounded. I think the cooling temperatures and the breeze helped.

We sat around the table with head lamps for listing and dinner, aided by some kind of glorified fuel-powered patio torch. We had a great vegetable soup and then a dish of chicken in mushroom sauce over rice, followed by strawberries and cream (condensed milk) - wow, we're on the luxury safari! While we were sitting about, I watched Raul and his assistant chopping up vegetables, I assume for the next soup or meal. Barry pointed out to me that they were speaking Quechua (not Spanish) among themselves.

We crawled into our tent at 9:00 p.m.. It was REALLY hot and sticky. We managed to clean up a little with travel moist towelettes, which are an absolute necessity when camping in the tropics, lovingly called "baby butt wipes" by Erick et al. Zipped open the tent "windows" as far as we could and thanks to the dark, slept in next to nothing, trying to minimize the amount of body surface area that touched the hot, nylon sleeping bags. It did cool off some in the middle of the night and I slept well until about 2:00 a.m. Unfortunately, in turning over and waking up, I became aware of raucous snoring emanating from Erick's tent. Apparently the local dogs thought it was a jaguar, because they began incessant barking ... if I'd had a BB-gun or even a rock I'd have gone after those blasted dogs in my underwear! I finally managed to go back to sleep just in time to get up!

Birds Observed from Celendin and across the pass all the way to Balsas
(September 14)

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Mountain Caracara
American Kestrel
Peruvian Pigeon
Eared Dove
Croaking Ground-Dove
Bare-faced Ground-Dove
Black-winged Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Scarlet-fronted Parakeet (Heard only)
Squirrel Cuckoo
Groove-billed Ani
Peruvian Pygmy-Owl (Heard only)
White-collared Swift
Spot-throated Hummingbird (Peruvian Endemic)
Andean Emerald
Shining Sunbeam
Green-tailed Trainbearer
Tyrian Metaltail
Oasis Hummingbird
Purple-collared Woodstar
Black-necked Woodpecker (Peruvian Endemic)
Andean Flicker
Baron's Spinetail (Peruvian Endemic)
Chestnut-backed Thornbird (Peruvian Endemic)
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta (Heard only)
Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet
White-throated Tyrannulet (Heard only)
Maranon (Black-crested) Tit-Tyrant (Near Endemic)
Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant
Tumbes Pewee (Tumbes Endemic)
Vermilion Flycatcher
White-browed Chat-Tyrant
Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant
White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant
Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant
White-winged Black-Tyrant
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Inca (Green) Jay
Chiguanco Thrush
Great Thrush
Long-tailed Mockingbird
Fasciated Wren
House Wren
Maranon Gnatcatcher (Peruvian Endemic)
Hooded Siskin
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Rufous-naped (Baron's) Brush-Finch
Cinereous Conebill
Buff-bellied Tanager(Near Endemic)
Blue-gray Tanager
Blue-and-Yellow Tanager
Golden-rumped Euphonia
Peruvian Sierra-Finch (Near Endemic)
Mourning Sierra-Finch
Gray-winged Inca-Finch (Peruvian Endemic)
Buff-bridled Inca-Finch (Peruvian Endemic)
Blue-black Grassquit
Band-tailed Seedeater
Dull-colored Grassquit
Black-throated Flower-piercer
Golden-bellied Grosbeak
Golden-billed Saltator
Streaked Saltator
Yellow-tailed Oriole
Peruvian Meadowlark


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